Introducing Undergraduates to Primary Literature using Science in the Classroom
Prior to becoming an educator, I spent many years as a biologist doing basic research. When I started teaching at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland, I was struck by the discrepancy between the dynamic, analytical science I experienced from reading journal articles and the “facts discovered in the past now need to be memorized” way biology is often presented in textbooks.
As approaches to teaching biology increasingly involve more student-centered and inquiry-based learning, it might seem logical to introduce biology students to primary literature in their freshman- and sophomore-level classes. Reading primary literature provides an opportunity for students to practice data analysis and higher-order thinking skills, while providing them insight into the dynamic nature of science.
However, when I considered introducing primary literature to my students, I was dissuaded by one simple fact: learning to read journal articles is difficult. I knew that providing the students with enough scaffolding to understand the papers would be challenging, especially since I teach at a community college, where the students enter with different levels of academic skills.
That is why I was so delighted to discover Science in the Classroom (SiTC). This site, created by AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), specifically addresses this problem by providing free, annotated research papers. The papers on this site have a wonderful interactive tool (Learning Lens) that gives detailed explanations for their contents.
Many papers also have embedded resources and/or linked activities from BioInteractive or other sites that provide context for the material, as well as educator guides to facilitate teaching. In addition, the articles on SiTC investigate topics that are likely to be interesting to students: whether dinosaurs were “warm- or cold-blooded," with related BioInteractive resources including the activity “How Did Dinosaurs Regulate Body Temperature?” and the Data Point “Thermoregulation in Dinosaurs;” and how sleep “cleans” our brain, with related BioInteractive Data Point “Sleep Clears β-amyloid from the Brain.”
I use SiTC in my Genetics and Cell Biology classes. I begin by providing the students with some background on the topic of the paper, along with a demonstration of the interactive features of SiTC. I then assign a portion of the article with one or two data figures and ask the students to try to answer questions I’ve written on the material and to bring their answers to class. These include both comprehension and inferential questions.
At the beginning of the semester, even with the scaffolding provided by SiTC, most students struggle with answering many of these questions. To address this, I have students discuss their responses in small groups and tell them that they may change their answers before handing them in for a grade. Often, students are able to answer challenging questions by collaborating with their peers. As the semester continues, the students gain confidence and become increasingly proficient reading primary literature. By the end of the semester, they now enjoy primary literature.
Kathryn Jones has been an adjunct professor of biology at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland for 7 years. She teaches a variety of courses including Genetics, General Biology, Cell Biology, and Introduction to Undergraduate Research. Prior to becoming an educator, Dr. Jones was a research scientist at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, where her work focused on the retrovirus human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1. Her hobbies include hiking, traveling, gardening, and going to wine tastings.